A change for the better
Sometimes, it's the little things we remember most. Oh sure, that game you played might've had intense cutscenes, an epic overarching story, or a staggeringly large world. But at the end of the year, the thing you remember most is what made it different from all its contemporaries. The unique angle, the distinct approach, the inventive manner in which it superseded established norms--usually it can all be distilled to the use of one particularly cool mechanic.
Even if a release in the past 12 months wasn't stellar enough to crack the best games of 2013 picks, there's plenty of value tucked away in unique game mechanics. Whether it was the creation of an entirely new concept, or the refinement of one that's rarely used, so many games this year skipped the established tropes of their respective genre, replacing tired standbys with mechanics that felt exciting and new. What does it take to really stand out in this day and age? Things like
Character-swapping in an open-world (Grand Theft Auto 5)
Every sandbox city has those awful moments, when you're stuck on one side of town but all the action seems to be on the other. Most games tell you to suck it up, forcing you to spend an agonizing five minutes speeding from one district to another in a stolen car. Not so in GTA 5 (at least, not nearly as often). The ability to swap freely between Michael, Franklin, and Trevor made it so that a change of pace was always just a D-pad click away, whisking you to another part of the city like a chaos-inciting fairy godmother. It also enabled some of the funniest scene transitions we've ever encountered in a game (most courtesy of Trevor's psychotic antics).
Blade Mode (Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance)
Plenty of action games offer dismemberment physics--that's nothing new. The best ones let you hack and slash in slow motion, so you can really appreciate the correct-use-of-the-word-visceral gore; 2009's Afro Samurai is a great example. But none have offered would-be butchers as much precision as Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, with its slow-mo Blade Mode that encouraged you to cut your enemies into small blood-splattered cubes. Raiden's high-tech swords let you dice anything and everything into a series of wafer-thin slices, which was way more fun than most would care to admit. We probably added a good hour to our playtime just from gleefully carving soldiers and mechs into Kevlar-plated sashimi.
Double Cherry (Super Mario 3D World)
Super Mario 3D World had better multiplayer than wed ever seen in a Mario game, but we had more fun playing co-op with two, three, or even eight players all by ourselves. 3D Worlds Double Cherry clones whoever grabs the power-up, creating a new Mario every time a another Cherry is picked up. The growing group of doubles are controlled with the same input and mirror the others actions, making navigating even a simple stage a manically enjoyable puzzle all its own. The only downside was the Double Cherrys limited appearances; lesser developers could have built an entire game around this innovation.
Memory remixing (Remember Me)
Alanis Morissette would have a field day with Capcom's experimental sci-fi brawler Remember Me, because it wasn't quite as memorable as the name would imply. But one of its ideas is something we certainly won't forget: memory remixing, which stood out as an ingenious puzzle mechanic in an otherwise dreary brawler. Like Inception, the idea was to delve into someone's mind and reorganize their thoughts, experimenting with different variables until you got the desired results. The presentation was excellent, with a glitchy, minimalist, dreamlike aesthetic. There were a multitude of surprisingly varied outcomes, but the end goal was the same: change a character's primary motivators, just by tinkering with their memory of a single event.
Ship boarding (Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag)
Boarding incapacitated ships in Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is no mere push-a-button-and-profit act. Nay, it's a dramatic unfolding of point blank cannon fire, rope swinging assassinations, and the plundering of all the booty a pirate can handle. It all starts with the epic open-water engagement: Find a frigate with tons of ore and cloth onboard, then wipe out its sails with some chainshot and well-placed cannon balls. Next, roll up alongside it, grab the nearest rope, and swing on board. After putting a healthy chunk of the ship's crew to the sword, it's all yours for the taking--loot and all. The whole process is downright exhilarating, and is one of AC4's finest features.
Listen Mode (The Last of Us)
Yeah, we know that it's basically Batman's Detective Mode, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the coolest new mechanics from 2013. Why? Well, because it actually sort of makes sense. Batman having a deus ex machina button that lets him see solutions to puzzles isn't actually as tangible as the idea that if you get down low and concentrate, you can pay better attention to your surroundings. It takes something that plenty of games have done and makes it realistic without compromising the usefulness, and, yeah, that might not sound as sexy written down as it did in our heads, but it's still super useful, right?
Interdimensional tears (BioShock Infinite)
BioShock Infinites skyhook rides were exciting, but the gameplay application of Elizabeths reality warping powers was easily the games greatest innovation. Like the first BioShock, Infinites battlefields were sandboxes strewn with different items that created multiple combat options, and now Elizabeth could import things from other realities to have even more impact on a firefight. A powerful sentry, a new platform, or a stockpile of ammo had the potential to change the tide in battle, but you could only have one at a time, so there was an on the fly strategy to changing out the items. It was a fresh way to emphasize choice through gameplay, a recurring theme for BioShock.
Single-player co-op (Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons)
The Adventures of Cookie & Cream on PS2 first introduced us to the concept of two characters being guided simultaneously by the same controller. But the puzzles it offered weren't nearly as rich as those found in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which taxed our hand-eye coordination like few games can. With each hand corresponding to an individual brother, it felt as though two sides of your same self were working in unison, your brain cooperating with itself to pull levers and let go of ledges at just the right moment. At first, it felt a bit like patting our heads while rubbing our stomachs. By the end, our hands were moving in unison like a fraternal team.
The power of stamps (Papers, Please)
You've only got two choices: Approved or Denied. It's a decision you'll have to make over and over at the Grestin Border Checkpoint, as you and hundreds of citizens like you struggle to get by under the strict bureaucratic requirements that The Ministry of Admission demands. But no matter which label you stamp on passports with a satisfying ker-chunk, somebody's getting their life ruined. Do you knowingly approve the newlywed who wants to be with her spouse, even though her papers are missing? Do you reject desperate immigrants in droves, so you can just barely afford to feed your family? So many terrible outcomes can be traced back to whichever stamp you choose.
Merging with walls in painting form (The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds)
Link's adventures have always been rife with ingenious dungeon puzzles and inventive methods of traversal. But the power to shift onto walls in A Link Between Worlds added another wrinkle to Link's top-down adventures, changing the way we looked at the environments both literally and figuratively. It took some getting used to, but once we realized that pits and barricades were surmountable obstacles in the 2D plane instead of dead-ends, our approach to dungeon puzzles got flipped on its head. Slipping behind paintings, ducking into walls to avoid damage, and wriggling through trans-dimensional cracks in the faces of mountains were all refreshing modes of travel, in that magical only-in-Zelda kind of way.
Rewiring levels with the Crosslink device (Gunpoint)
Your typical stealth game will talk up a lot of emergent gameplay--but when you're actually slinking through the shadows, you realize that the developers laid out a very set path for the player. Not so with Gunpoint, which lets you restructure levels down to the very last light switch to suit your stealthy needs. That means the solutions to these multi-layered puzzles are as complex or simple as you make them. There's nothing quite as satisfying as rewiring a level so that your enemies end up killing themselves, in a Rube Goldberg-esque domino of guard death. Crosslink is the kind of game mechanic that really encourages creative thinking, and not in a Minecraft or Terraria kind of way.
The finger of God (Tearaway)
Sometimes, when wandering the whimsical world of Tearaway, you'll find paper that you can shove your finger through. You do this by literally putting your finger--which you've specified the color tone of at the beginning of the game--on the back touch pad, making it genuinely feel like you're shoving your digits into the digital world. That, alone, would make it worthy of being on this list, but it's the attention to detail that takes it from "interesting idea" to "HOLY WHAT," since it uses the Vita's back camera to put a little border around your finger, showing the world behind your Vita as you break through the paper. It's wow. Wooooooow.
Audio logs that play from your controller (Killzone: Shadow Fall)
Audio logs aren't anything new--in fact, they're one of the most overplayed tropes from the last generation (remind us next year to write up the Top 7 most overplayed tropes from the last generation). So when a game actually manages to surprise us with its audio logs, we pay attention. And that's just what Killzone: Shadow Fall did, by having the audio come not from our TV's speakers, but from the controller's. Sure, some Wii games did this a few years back, but hearing our DualShock 4 speak for the first time gave us a jump we won't soon forget.
Unite Morphs (The Wonderful 101)
Divided, we fall; united, we form a gigantic red fist that punches colossal aliens in the face. The Wonderful 101 demonstrates what's possible when the mob mentality works for the greater good--with a smidgen of superpowers mixed in, of course. Depending on the formation you drew on your GamePad, the noble citizens in your heroic brigade can combine into huge drills, or boomerangs, or spiked balls, or a rocket ship, or handguns, or a host of awesome transformations. It's kinda like those human pyramids you made at sleep-away camp, but ten billion times cooler.
The go-anywhere skill tree (Path of Exile)
Path of Exile is a game by Diablo fans, for Diablo fans, so of course it's going to play pretty closely to the its spiritual predecessor. But its most intriguing aspect is actually a nod to Final Fantasy X: a colossal, interconnected skill tree with limitless possibilities. Each class starts as a spoke on the passive skill wheel, but if you plan your build ahead of time, you can venture far beyond your class' standard specialties. A Ranger that tanks with evasion and a shield? A hulking Marauder that only uses wands? A spell-casting Witch with a two-handed axe? It's the actual fulfillment of a promise made by countless action RPGs: whatever character you dream up, you can build it.
Scope zeroing (Battlefield 4)
Typical video game sniper rifles work one of two ways: either they fire laserbeams that strike enemies exactly where they're aiming from any distance, or they include realistic bullet drops that force you to account for distance and stuff. Battlefield 4 adds in a new way: scope zeroing. The bullet drops, but instead of forcing you to literally train yourself in the physics of bullet velocity, you're able to adjust the scope to do that work for you. The result is being able to accurately hit enemies, while accounting for the bullet drop, from thousands of feet away--all the while feeling like an absolute baller.
Two-button, no joystick fighting (Divekick)
The fighting game genre is often maligned for being too demanding; if you don't have the wherewithal to memorize combos and execute them at the drop of a hat, you might as well just stick to being a spectator. Divekick said to hell with that, boiling 2D fighting down to its raw essence like syrup from a mound of complex sugars. The premise was pretty much the same: try to predict your opponent's next move, then punish them with a flying kick to the dome. But the input method was radically different, with a jump button, a dive button, and nothing else--not even a joystick for back-and-forth movement. It made Divekick a traditional fighter that anyone could pick up and play.
Pro Stick control (NBA 2K14)
Pro Stick control splits opinion like Jrue Holiday slicing between two lumbering defenders. While some enjoy the subtle control that mapping shooting and dribbling to the Right Thumbstick affords, others just cant adjust to the fact its very different to 2K13s set-up. Master the Pro Stick, though, and you really can play some wonderful virtual basketball. Angling your body on lay-ups is much easier, and you can chain together dribble moves with shooting, seamlessly. Those fancy moves your favorite players make--like Jamal Crawfords Shake and Bake--suddenly become a) possible and b) reasonably easy to pull off. Its not a complete success, though, which is why you can switch the Right Stick to pure dribble move in the options menu, but it is a step forward in terms of control for those savvy enough to persist with it.
Cutting your way across a level (Puppeteer)
Movement in 2D sidescrollers has already been well established at this point. You jump, you run, and in some games, you smack or blast enemies. But Puppeteer outfitted the adorable marionette Kutaro with quite the clever gizmo: the magical Calibrus shears, which doubled as a weapon and a method of locomotion. It transformed the way you moved through levels; instead of just hopping from platform to platform, Kutaro could actually cut his way over chasms and towards secrets, the magical scissors yanking him in any direction. When any piece of fabric in the background becomes a pathway to the next area, the possibilities are something quite atypical of your average platformer.
Drivatars (Forza Motorsport 5)
Yes, the word "Drivatar" is little more than a ridiculous, made-up marketing term. But what it represents in Forza Motorsport 5 is certifiably awesome--a new type of asynchronous multiplayer, where a computer does its very best to be you. Like a servo-replicant training to murder you and take over your life, your Drivatar studies your every move behind the wheel, learning to mimic your braking and turning habits. Once your methods have been assimilated, your Drivatar speeds around the track in your friends' races, giving your pals some better AI competition and you some bonus points. Drivatars could very well be a glimpse into the future of multiplayer--where you don't even have to be playing to play.
Flippin' the script
Of all the games in 2013, those are the unique mechanics that stood out the most to us. Would you agree? Think we missed a small revolution somewhere? Tell us all about it in the comments below.
And if you're looking for more, check out Ludicrous in-game explanations for normal in-game mechanics and 20 games you've been playing wrong all along.